REVIEW: The Courtesan’s Wager by Claudia Dain
Dear Ms. Dain:
Jane has been trying to get me to read the Courtesan Chronicles for the longest time, but for whatever reason, I just didn’t get around to it. Until now, that is, with The Courtesan’s Wager, the third book in the series. Even though I skipped to this book and knew there were multiple references and relationships about which I was missing information, I found The Courtesan’s Wager quite able to stand alone as a wonderfully intelligent, witty, entertaining book.
Amelia Caversham, twenty-one and already two years out in society, is ready to marry and wants a duke. Which is reasonable, after all, seeing that she is the daughter of a duke, and, as Amelia is quite aware herself, well-bred, well-favored physically, and well-behaved. Mostly well-behaved, that is, except for some tiny, perfectly innocent indiscretions with a certain earl. But no one else knows about a few stolen kisses, and certainly Amelia is still mostly innocent, if not completely naÃ¯ve, and the kissing earl has not, in the two years she has known him, made any discernable move to push her into further intimacy or ask for her hand in marriage.
So Amelia makes a bold move and asks Sophia Dalby, former courtesan and current countess, for help in winning a proposal from a duke. Sophia, who had recently arranged the successful marriage of Amelia’s cousin Louisa to another of the Duke of Hyde’s son, has a talent for arranging scandal in the service of proper marital commitments, which also happen to be love matches. Despite the current dearth of dukes on the market, Sophia assures Amelia that she will be well-satisfied in trusting her to manage the situation:
There simply was no one else who could manage things of this nature as well as Sophia Dalby.
“I mean to say,” Amelia continued, raising her voice slightly and stiffening her spine, “what I mean, Lady Dalby, is that I would very much like to marry a duke and I would very much like your help in acquiring one.” . . .
“Why, darling,” Sophia said, leaning forward and taking Amelia by the hand, “that sounds positively riveting. I’m quite sure that, between the two of us, we can manage to snare one duke, don’t you agree?”
“You truly think so?” Amelia said, her breath escaping her in a rush of pure relief, nay, exultation. Here was the answer to all her problems in attracting a duke. She should have come to Sophia two years ago.
“I have no doubt of it whatsoever,” Sophia said, patting her hand and leaning back in her chair, her dark eyes considering Amelia with a scrutiny that was blatant and unsettling.
Amelia’s choices include the Duke of Calbourne, who is, unfortunately, “excessively tall” and blonde, as Amelia is (“While blond hair and a generally fair coloration is quite appealing in the right degree, it is positively revolting when taken to ex ¬tremes.”), the Duke of Edenham, who has, unfortunately, had “three wives die under him” (“Some women are not entirely… sturdy,” after all), and The Marquis of Iveston, the Duke of Hyde’s eldest son and heir apparent to the dukedom. Of the three, Iveston is by all outward signs the most promising (not too tall, not too blonde, no dead wives), except for the fact that his younger brother, the Earl of Cranleigh, is dead set against having another brother made prey to Sophia Dalby’s scandalous schemes.
What follows is an amusing romantic comedy of manners, proceeding from Sophia’s plan to subject each potential husband to interviews, which Amelia initially finds crass and scandalous, but which proves to be extremely effective in producing a veritable surplus of men interested in being considered. What should be quite a sordid and demeaning process, in other words, instead becomes a social event in and of itself, as the potential dukes endeavor to best each other and prove their relative superiority in the eyes of Amelia and society in general:
“Don’t they look charming?” Sophia said, her dark eyes glit ¬tering. “They appear very eager to speak with us, which is quite a lovely compliment. Let’s allow them the pleasure, shall we? I do think that now is the time, Lady Amelia, for you to unleash all your considerable experience at sparkling conversation.”
Amelia was quite certain that she had no experience what ¬soever at sparkling conversation. She was not going to let that small detail interfere with her sparkling all over Iveston. “I am quite prepared, Lady Dalby,” Amelia said. “If you will lead the way?”
“Lead the way? Oh, darling girl, no, no. That is not at all how it’s done. They must come to us, you see. I thought that was perfectly obvious. We may beckon them. We may ignore them. We may charm them. But we must never approach them. Men do love to run after things, pursuit being their preferred leisure activity. No one of any intelligence understands why this is so, but the matter, understandable or not, is not up for debate. A man pursues. A woman eludes. It is the way of things.”
Amelia was very much afraid her mouth was hanging agape and presenting a most unattractive view of herself. She snapped her mouth shut.
“But Lady Dalby, by your very words I am becoming fa ¬mous for interviewing the Duke of Calbourne! Is that not pur ¬suit? Is that not precisely why I am here tonight and why I should speak to Lord Iveston?”
“Darling,” Sophia soothed, “you are confusing the issue
completely, mixing together two separate acts that do not re ¬quire mixing. You will have your interview, indeed, I should be much surprised if Iveston, and even Edenham did not insist upon it.”
“They will insist upon it?” Amelia said. She was developing a headache behind her right ear. It took all her composure not to rub the spot. “Whyever for?”
“Pursuit, darling Amelia,” Sophia said softly. “They must now pursue. They are men, poor dears, they are very nearly compelled to do so.”
In the meantime, Cranleigh is becoming more and more enraged at the idea that Amelia is considering Iveston, and downright horrified that Iveston seems to be going along with the scheme, but not, perhaps, for the reasons he publicly avers:
“Why Iveston? Because you want to be a duchess, Amelia, that is all. Iveston is nothing to you beyond a title. And I have made up my mind that he shall not be cast at your hem for you to pick up like a broken flower.”
He said it hotly, angrily, when he had meant to be cold and distant, to hold her beauty away from him, to keep her off, to keep her out.
She studied him, unmoving, perhaps unmoved by his decla ¬ration.
“Why not, if he wants to be plucked?” she asked. “I shall make him a fine wife.”
“A fine duchess?”
“Again, why not?” she said coldly.
“But being a wife is not the same as being a duchess,” he said, taking another step nearer to her. “Can you simply pick a man’s name from Debrett’s, spreading your life and your legs out for him? Can you do that, Amelia?”
He was being crass, to shock her, to scare her. She did not so much as flinch.
“It is done everyday, Cranleigh. Every single day. Why should it be any different for me?”
She backed up, just a sliding step, almost casually, but an ¬other step removed from him. Or so she hoped. How far would she retreat to avoid him? How far would he push her into the conservatory? Until her back was pressed against the cold glass? Until her hair was caught and snagged by rose branches? Until the word duchess was driven from her? There was no place that far. No place on earth that far.
“Why, Cranleigh?” she said, her blue eyes wide and imploring. “Why are you fighting this so? I must marry. Why not Iveston?”
“Never Iveston,” he said. “You think he cannot see what you are?”
“What I am?” she countered, her eyes clear of tears, which he had not expected.
“Taken,” he snarled, taking another step nearer, pushing her back into the roses, the petals encompassing her, the thorns grabbing at her gown. And still she stepped away from him. Still she would not relent in her pursuit of Iveston. He could read it in her eyes.
“Taken? Taken, Cranleigh?” she said, lifting her chin. “I am the farthest thing from taken.”
“No, Amy,” he said, his voice hoarse in own ears. “Not the farthest thing.”
The tension between the ducal interviews and Cranleigh’s increasing resistance drives the plot, the substance of which is primarily focused on the verbal exchanges between characters, which are, as I hope my liberal quoting indicates, incredibly clever and incisive. The book spans very few days, and the plotting is primarily centered on the drawing out the social consequences of instigating Amelia’s marriage hunt and the attention it brings. The characterizations develop through a layered unfolding, a presentation and stripping away of appearances, and the emotional richness of the romance between Cranleigh and Amelia is articulated through the intensity of their attraction and the power dynamics that Sophia swears by: pursuit and evasion.
If there is a theme to the romantic philosophy of the novel it might be one of capture; that is, the romantic couple is captured in mutual attraction, and the mating dance is itself a drama centered on both the predatory nature of love and the power struggle between the lovers, each of whom is predator and prey. Amelia is predator in her search for a husband, which triggers Cranleigh’s possessive response. Cranleigh practically stalks Amelia, and she plays coy in the absence of any stated desire to marry her. Love captures both of them, but their mutual passion simultaneously frees them. Most of the deliberate strategy is employed by the women of the novel, and in many ways it seems as if they are in charge of everyone’s movements, but one of the lessons of the novel is that characters regularly think they are controlling their own destinies, only to have the reader discover that someone else has been invisibly guiding them.
That is not to say that women are disempowered in the novel. In fact, this is a very female-centric book, celebrating strong, decisive women who are decidedly not perfect. Amelia, for example, is intelligent, passionate, and cunning, but she is not inclined toward deep reflection. She is vain, and she has a perfectly reasonable sense of herself as socially superior. Penelope Prestwick, the heroine of the next novel, I’m assuming, is intellectually-oriented and among a society that values exactly the opposite in its marriageable women.
The male characters are strong and strongly drawn, as well. From Amelia’s brother, Hawksworth, who never met a reclining sofa he didn’t like, to Cranleigh, with his eyes ‘as blue as artic ice, as cold and sharp as snow, and as full of unspoken shadows as to lure the most innocent of girls,” these are worthy adversaries and mates. Cranleigh, a sailor by occupation and passion, is an explorer through and through – passionate, unafraid, a little reckless – yet he is also honorably restrained and a loyal brother and son.
As I read the book, I was thinking about comedies of manners of the 18th century, of farce, of morality plays, and even the satire of Wilde, even though the book’s setting is Regency and not Victorian. There are many echoes in The Courtesan’s Wager, and they worked well here, allowing for a layered play on substance and appearance. In fact, I was thinking about how the criticism I had about the last Eloisa James novel I reviewed had its counterpoint in Dain’s book, which had some of the same intertextual, cross-genre weaving, but without the sense of discordant chaos.
Instead, the main weakness for me of The Courtesan’s Wager is that the tautness that characterizes the first part of the book loosens, and the sense of urgency that drives both the novel and Amelia’s search become diffused by a certain narrative wandering and a stall in the movement toward the romantic resolution. At the point we are very clear about where things are going and why, the how starts to feel a bit forced, at once too strung out and at the same time unsatisfyingly sudden. While I very much enjoyed the way characters’ motivations were revealed gradually, creating a nice tension around the way the romance would be resolved in a situation where we knew to expect the outcome, there were also some diversions that felt more like distractions than purposeful side trips.
It is difficult to discuss the latter part of the book in much detail without completely spoiling the few secrets that make things interesting, but I can offer one example, namely the increasing attention paid during the last sections of the book to Sophia Dalby’s Mohawk relatives. Now I realize that part of this is probably relevant to other books in the series, past and present, but some of it just seemed present for the purpose of stretching out the final sections of the novel, especially a number of extended passages in which the narrative shifts from one of Sophia’s male relatives to the next, including numerous comments about the savage inclinations of the Iroquois.
Some of this made me smile, frankly, because as someone who is readily disgusted by the portrayal of Native Americans in Romance, there is a wonderful play here – again – on the way these Mohawk characters present anything but savagery in their appearance and demeanor. Also, the fact that the Mohawk were members of the great Iroquois Confederacy matters here, because the Mohawk fought with the British against the Colonists during the American Revolution, (although they fought with the French during the War of 1812, which complicated matters considerably). So their ambiguous relationship to the British Town nobles was fittingly ambiguous. And I understand that Sophia, as half Mohawk herself, has an interesting history that will unfold in future books, something I am definitely anticipating eagerly.
I suppose that part of the reason for the focus on the Mohawks was to make relevant Sophia’s revelation to Cranleigh that she was born because her mother, a captive, was courted relentlessly by her father, a Mohawk warrior of some status (which may not be the most historically accurate thing, since the Mohawk are matrilineal, and also, among the Iroquois, captives were regularly adopted into the tribe and given all the rights and privileges of the lost members they were replacing). But I still found myself restless during some of these passages. And my restlessness was probably increased by the fact that some of the wittiness started to wear thin at the end (too much of a good thing, perhaps, along with some unnecessary repetition) and the final union of Amelia and Cranleigh felt artificially stretched. It was a bit like watching someone tiptoe slowly to a closed door and open it unceremoniously to nothing.
Overall, though, I found The Courtesan’s Wager to be am ambitious, engaging novel, intelligent, witty, and, somewhat surprisingly, quite emotionally intense. And a solid B.